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A green opportunity: linking river health and nature-based solutions

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Stephen Ollier
Associate Director in Water at Arup.

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  • green opportunity: linking river health and nature-based solutions

Humans have an intrinsic link to water. Our freshwater and coastal environments underpin life as we know it, yet we so often take it for granted. A river is a marker for environmental health, but also the health of the land, catchments and communities which feed into it. It is part of a complex, integrated system which we must understand, respect and nurture.      

A healthy river should support an abundance of life. It should contain natural flow regimes through surface and groundwaters, be devoid of excess nutrients and toxic chemicals, and have space to meander with natural runs, riffles and floodplains. In doing so, rivers support a thriving community and economy, and provide clean water, access to nature, food and energy.

In England, no river currently meets what we consider “good” using these key health indicators. And whilst much of the attention is focussed on wastewater treatment facilities and storm overflows, these are only part of the story. Agriculture, mining activity, physical modifications in towns and cities and highway drainage all impact the health of our rivers. But there is hope, there are solutions, and there is a lot to gain.

A nature-based solution refers to a living infrastructure which uses “green” systems and processes to provide essential services. It involves replacing traditional “grey” infrastructure such as buried pipe and storage tank solutions with measures including natural open grassy channels and wetlands. Both solutions can provide a similar output, i.e. water conveyance, attenuation and treatment, but the green solution provides a much wider array of positive outcomes – from habitat creation to carbon sequestration. But, to unlock their potential and regenerate our catchments we need to take a systems thinking approach, link them together at scale, and create green corridors across the country.

Distributed nature-based solutions, supplemented with optimal grey infrastructure, can provide more affordable and resilient outcomes

In the UK, the Water Industry National Environment Programme (WINEP) represents an opportunity to think differently and deliver on the UK’s ambitious Environment Act. To meet the Government’s “10 spill” output target, the business-as-usual approach is considered grey infrastructure; using known technologies which are capital expenditure driven. But, what if we took a nature-positive outcome approach?

The recent Welsh Manifesto for Rivers moves away from a numeric target and shifts to a more nuanced “no harm” approach. The aim is to promote the best total-value investment, catchment-based permitting and nature-based solutions. By using this approach to address storm overflows, the balance of solutions has shifted from grey to green. Evidence from past projects also shows that distributed nature-based solutions, supplemented with optimal grey infrastructure, can provide more affordable and resilient outcomes. 

Of course, it is more nuanced than simply expecting nature-based solutions to solve all our challenges, and traditional infrastructure upgrades will still be needed to underpin our greener future. In Pontyfelin, a novel nature-based treatment system including reedbeds and Integrated Constructed Wetlands is being delivered. This is a community led design, which uses a blend of placemaking, engineering and science to create a robust treatment system, re-connecting the community with the local environment, and delivering health benefits for the river and people. Similarly, in Mansfield, Severn Trent Water is using Green Recovery funding to re-invigorate the town with nature-based solutions to turn the town into a “sponge”, to reduce flood risk, improve river water quality and boost the local economy. 

Nature-based solutions are a fundamental building block to securing healthy rivers. To deliver at scale we need to be bold, innovate, and put communities, places and nature at the heart of the decisions we make. In doing this, we can inspire a generation, and shift from rhetoric to delivery.  

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